Richard McBrien, one of the avatars of rebellion in the American church, seems to have passed definitively into a farcical phase. For decades now he has been a vigorous exponent of the view that Vatican II set out to dismantle the Church. A new ecclesiology had been put over on the Council Fathers by the periti, and the hierarchical conception of the Church was to give way to a populist, democratic one. It would perhaps be unfair to characterize the new church as one in which theologians like McBrien would tell lay people what to believe. But in the transitional period theologians would act as buffers between the pope and people. These intrepid ombudsmen saw their function as protecting the unwashed from the depredations of the magisterium. An encyclical or instruction from Rome was immediately repudiated by Charles Curran and Richard McBrien, stalwart defenders of the sanctity of the suburban marriage bed. A refusal to lift the ban on artificial contraception? In their Chablis and McBrie church, American Catholics could overlook such embarrassments as Humance Vitae and keep up with the Joneses.
The theological embrace of the sexual revolution went hand in hand with a loathing of American society which found its expression in radical chic flirtations with the Left. Marxist revolutionaries in Nicaragua and elsewhere could count on a raised glass at the wine and cheese parties of dissident theologians, safe in their academic redoubts. Among the moral absolutes of the group was that the American economy was essentially immoral, that our prosperity was a result of exploiting the rest of the globe, and that some form of socialism was the only economic system compatible with Christianity.
Centesimus Annus has been the latest magisterial shaft in the flesh of the pseudo-Sebastians of rebellion. Socialist revolutions are flickering out around the globe; the Evil Empire has crumbled. Secular leftists tremble that the KGB file on Alger Hiss will soon turn up. Our in-house rebels witness the steady implementation of Vatican II going on around them. Converts stream into the Church. Bishops with their miters on straight have crowds of seminarians, as do orders new and old which appeal to the idealism of the young. The confusion sown by dissenters during the past quarter-century has done many things, but one thing it manifestly has not done: establish the new ecclesiology.
In such circumstances, what is a defeated rebel to do except declare victory? A few years ago, it was Thomas Sheehan in the New York Review of Books informing us of the Liberal Consensus. All the “centers of power” had been taken over by heretics. If Sheehan was right, it was all over with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America. A lot has happened in the few years since Sheehan wrote, rendering his geopolitical allusions silly. For his penance, he can be assigned his own article to read. But now, among the debris and debacle, a comic figure rises, arms outstretched, both hands lifted in defiant V’s for victory. It is the redoubtable McBrien.
Richard McBrien is the worst thing that ever happened to the University of Notre Dame, an institution where I have spent nearly four decades of my career. (Call that the second worst thing that Notre Dame has had to suffer.) The damage he caused there is a story still largely untold. Of course the academy was only a springboard for a man who has said he would really rather be a senator. But he is an embarrassment who refused to confine himself to the campus.
If any spouse talked about marriage the way McBrien talks about celibacy, eyebrows would lift. McBrien has said that to be sexually active is a sign of emotional maturity and that celibacy thus condemns priests to emotional immaturity. Logicians probably have a term for the kind of proof this sentence conveys, the counterpart of self-refuting. What a trahison des clercs!
Of course, he has practiced long and hard, insulting bishops, cardinals and popes. He has managed to make the Jehovah Witnesses sound like papists. His insulting remarks about the Holy Father have made him the darling of the media but been a pain to faithful Catholics. Now the pain has lifted, to be replaced by laughter. Father McBrien has finally lost it.
In a recent address he likened the papacy of John Paul II to the failed coup in Moscow. The only difference is that the Russian coup lasted only days, whereas we Catholics have been governed for 13 years and more by a usurper.
There are those who will want to dwell on the vulgarity of a mind that sees events in the Church in such secular terms. Personally, I welcome this final phase in the declension of Richard McBrien.
A few years ago, other rebels in the Church were suggesting that Paul VI was an imposter. That is, the real Paul VI had been kidnapped, killed, and replaced with the apparent Paul VI. How could one tell? Photographs were produced. Look at the ear lobes on this one, and now on this one. Can’t you see?
One edged away from such burning-eyed zealots, but for all that they were harmless. McBrien’s latest excess has made him similarly risible. Does he imagine that he has now become Catherine of Siena preaching against the Babylonian captivity? More likely Ockham. But Catherine was a saint and Ockham was intelligent. In any case, McBrien has suggested his own image.
The symbol of our days, Richard McBrien declaims, is Boris Yeltsin standing defiantly atop that tank. Talk of tanks suggests another image. A presidential candidate, in tanker’s helmet and silly grin, advancing on the camera. Michael Dukakis? No, it’s Richard McBrien. Smile, Richard. Smile.